Discover more from Unlikely: A Rookie's Ironman Triathlon Diary
#7. Necessary failures: lessons from the worst marathon of my life
Even after your seventh outhouse visit, with an icebag on your head, it's possible to remember that bad experiences make the best teachers
(In most of my posts, I am writing about my Ironman training chronologically, from couch to 70.3 and beyond. At times, though, I need to share more recent experiences—and debacles on the way to my full Ironman attempt in March 2023.)
The famous marathon “wall” usually happens around mile twenty, when many runners find themselves suddenly and miserably depleted. What do you call it when you hit the wall at mile eight, twelve, eighteen, and every mile after?
I call it St. George, Utah.
That’s where I had the worst run of my life three weeks ago— a series of escalating problems that I’d never predicted. This was supposed to be an “easy” marathon that I’d arranged as a gift to my husband—our first marathon together (previously I’d run three marathons with a female friend).
I deserved punishment, for pairing that word with the mileage covered by Phidippides, the Greek runner who ran from Marathon to Athens in 490 BC to announce the victory of the Greeks over the Persians—and then promptly dropped dead.
Before I bother you with the icky details, I’ll fast-forward to my conclusion. I was only halfway through this just-under-six-hour sufferfest when I knew it would be 1) the worst marathon I ever ran and 2) the most important failure, pre-Ironman, I would ever experience.
Why important? Because everything that happened could teach me about my gastrointestinal sensitivities, my hydration needs, my response to heat, and my mental resilience—or lack of it.
Granted, as early as mile eight I was already wondering if it would be smarter to hail the shuttle and ask to be picked up. Granted, nearing mile twenty I thought this series of “good lessons” might mean I’d feel sick for days. (And yes, I did feel sick for days, and strangely subpar for two entire weeks.)
But the learning opportunity was too precious to waste. Sick as I felt during race day—suffering from nausea, buckling quadriceps, heat overexposure, and diarrhea that required outhouse stops every two miles, I knew I had to finish the race at any pace, even if it meant walking most of the final six miles.
“This needed to happen today,” I told myself, ignoring the spectators bullying—I mean, cheering—me to go faster. “Better today than five months from now, in New Zealand.”
I could feel my brain making a conscious choice to shape this story as a positive one. I knew, post-race, that my narrative could change, as disappointment about the entire vacation week swept over me and I realized that no, we were not going to be able to hike or run for the rest of our vacation. We would be lucky just to get back to our room without soiling our pants or requiring an ambulance.
I gave myself a firm order: Do not let this be a negative story. This is the best thing that could happen, even if it feels horrible. Don’t let this freak you out. It’s a gift. Accept…the…gift!
I knew if I could take those lessons to heart, I’d learn something I could apply far beyond Ironman—to my writing life, personal life, and anywhere else where I’ve felt haunted by disappointments. After all, failures abound. With the right attitude, we can learn everything from them.
I also knew that my logical approach might not save me completely from future anxieties. It would be too easy to slip back into worry, having experienced a series of compounding mistakes so vividly.
WHAT WENT WRONG
If you’re not a runner, the specifics may bore you. But if you are—and especially if you ever plan to run an “easy” marathon like this one, take heed.
The St. George Marathon is a one-way marathon that begins at high elevation and then runs mostly downhill, through the desert, to the city. That part sounds great, right?
· Waking at 2:30 am in order to catch the 4 am shuttle bus to the race start, 26 miles away. The early hour alone plays havoc with stomach and bathroom routines.
· Waiting for two hours in a cold wind, next to smoky bonfires (I did appreciate the fires—but worried about all that smoke in my lungs, as well as the effect of being up so early, cold and uncomfortable).
· Running too fast, with downhill sections creating excess pounding on the quads in a way that promises a fast finish at first, before you realize your quads will simply stop working after about two hours. By mid-race, the uphills and flats felt much easier than the downhills. By mile 20, my legs were so atypically used-up that I worried I was going to fall flat on my face each time I lifted a foot. Even getting in and out of the outhouse was no easy feat.
· Intense heat once the sun rises. Based on average temps, I was expecting 50s to low 70s at the finish line. Instead, the day topped out at high 80s, under a cloudless sky. With climate instability everywhere, many races’ temperatures will be less predictable.
Those were unexpected features of the race. Add to it:
· We were on vacation. I probably picked some wrong meals (greasy tortilla chips, spicy meals) in the days before the race.
· I ate a different breakfast—white bagel with avocado—than the oatmeal I nearly always eat. Who wants to make oatmeal at 2 in the morning?
· I relied on aid station Gatorade and water, failing to accurately calculate how much sweat I was really likely to lose—which no amount of Gatorade (poured in three-ounce cups) could make up for.
· I ignored a friend’s advice and didn’t bring electrolyte salts—which I haven’t used in any race yet—because I couldn’t get them shipped in time and didn’t find them at the Expo.
The biggest common theme was that despite research, I didn’t follow my gut when it came to scientific preparation for this race. I knew I should be more careful but planning this run with a partner encouraged me to be casual instead of continuing to natter away about all of the finicky details.
I read about electrolyte problems and individuals’ sweat differences but I figured I didn’t have to sort that out yet—there was still time before Ironman!
I let myself believe that I could run a minute faster than my planned race pace, not realizing that even varying from race pace by 5 or 10 percent can spell disaster. I let the downhill slope convince me that this would be a special exception. I wanted and fully expected to PR!
I didn’t realize that you have to train for every course in its own way. Hills are hills, whether up or down. A shadeless desert course will never feel like the ones I usually run, on temperate forest trails.
I didn’t take this event seriously. I was so focused on something bigger—at least three times bigger, longer, and harder—that I convinced myself a “simple” marathon wasn’t challenging.
The only thing I did right was what I am doing now—an extension of what I did when I felt at my absolute worst. I tried my best to extract the new information and perspective from the debacle. Even so, I thought it was a pretty crappy and joyless day.
When I received the link to race photos in the mail, I was afraid to see how depleted I looked. I had no plan to order a single photo—no way! Imagine my surprise when I saw several photos of my husband and me—smiling and laughing, embracing the unexpected irony of this “easy vacation race.” Without those photos, I wouldn’t believe it—not the best moments, and not the worst ones, either.
I plan to frame this photo so I n..e..v…e…r f..o..r..g..e..t.
Have you had a terrible race or life experience that paid off in lessons learned? Tell me!
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